Daniel Defoe: Conjugal Lewdness (1056 words)

Daniel Defoe’s Conjugal Lewdness: or, Matrimonial Whoredom was published in 1727, when Defoe was in his late sixties and approaching the end of his life, although the Preface suggests that the book was begun almost thirty years earlier (p. iv). Like so many of Defoe’s works, it immediately provoked controversy. The Introduction describes the adverse response that greeted the advance publicity for the book, with critics attacking the work’s title, which, according to Defoe, was viewed as “a Breach upon Modesty” and offensive to their ears (p. 7). This may in part explain why, in a second edition published a few months after the first, it was more innocuously entitled A Treatise Concerning the Use and Abuse of the Marriage Bed.

But while the original provocative title was designed to attract attention, the text of Conjugal Lewdness reiterates that the work is a moral treatise, with no salacious intent. It can therefore be seen as part of the debate over sexual ethics that flourished from the late seventeenth century, as a response to the apparent decadence of contemporary society. The harsh laws against fornication and prostitution that were introduced during the Commonwealth had been repealed during the Restoration, and the Court was associated with drunkenness and debauchery. In 1690 the first Societies for the Reformation of Manners were formed, in an attempt to control the spread of prostitution, gambling, swearing and other “lewd” activities. The societies employed informers to detect immorality, encouraged prosecutions and published ”black lists” of offenders. Defoe was sympathetic to many of the aims of the Societies, (see Paula Backscheider, Daniel Defoe: His Life [Baltimore, 1989], pp. 235-6.) although his Reformation of Manners (1703) attacked the hypocrisy of those who indulged in the very vices which they punished in others.

In the years immediately prior to the publication of Conjugal Lewdness, the Societies had been particularly active, with 1,363 prosecutions in 1726-7. In 1725 there were numerous raids on London “Molly Houses”, public houses or clubs frequented by homosexual and transvestite men (see Rictor Norton, Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830 [London, 1992]). pp. 54-66. The resulting trials led to the production of anti-sodomitical pamphlets, and drew attention to the diversity of contemporary sexual practices. Defoe’s publication therefore manifests a general social preoccupation with sexual conduct, but the focus of interest in Conjugal Lewdness was the range of impermissible activities within, rather than outside, marriage. It challenges the belief “that there can be no Offence between a Man and his Wife, that Modesty is at an End ... that all Things are Decent, all Things modest, all Things lawful between a Man and his Wife” (p. 59). Its primary target is “the criminal use of the lawful Liberties of Matrimony” (p. 36). These include sexual intercourse during menstruation (p. 61), which Conjugal Lewdness suggests will lead to the production of children with faces marked with port wine stains or skin disorders, and intercourse immediately after childbirth and during pregnancy (pp. 297-9). There is also a heated attack on contraception and abortion, (pp. 150-1).

Conjugal Lewdness emphasises the importance of free choice within marriage, arguing that children should not blindly follow the wishes of their parents, or be swayed by prudential considerations. A glowing picture is painted of a couple who married for love, and for whom “Love is the constituting Quality of their Matrimony” (p. 115). Yet on the whole the image of marriage that emerges is far less positive: the arguments against various forms of inappropriate union, such as marriages without love on the part of one or both parties, marriages for material motives, marriages between people of unequal ages or social status, or marriages to satisfy friends or parents, are illustrated by a series of dramatised examples of bad marriages, presented through dialogue, authorial narration, or a combination of both. The impact of these stories is to reinforce the claim that marriage is not a desirable state, particularly for women. Having highlighted the dangers and uncertainties faced by a nubile woman the narrator argues that “She would be next to Lunatick to marry, to give up her Liberty ... Mortgage the Mirth, the Freedom, the Liberty, and, all the Pleasures of her Virgin-State” (p. 129) unless she was intending to have children. At several points in Conjugal Lewdness, marriage to an inappropriate partner is compared to “the way of punishing Malefactors in Persia, viz. tying the living Body to a dead Corpse, till the rotting Carcase poisoned the living, and then they rotted together” (p. 216). The marriage of women over child bearing age is therefore condemned as a form of “matrimonial Whoredom”, because the narrator assumes that such marriages can only be motivated by sexual desire.

The spread of sensual excess which the narrator identifies is associated with a general increase in consumption. Sexual incontinence is seen as a consequence of immoderate feeding, and this in turn has led to disease and physical decay: “Our Luxury is encreased; and with our Luxury, our Vices, and other Extravagances, our Lasciviousness, Sensuality, and, in a Word, our Impudence, and with all these our Distempers” (pp. 394-5). Conjugal Lewdness thus invokes the anti-luxury discourse of the early eighteenth century. But in his critique of the various “Breaches of conjugal Modesty” (p. 62) the narrator repeatedly returns to the paradoxical observation that it is difficult to condemn immoral activities, without using language which itself creates immoral ideas or images in the mind of the reader.

The pre-publication criticism of the book had claimed “That it forms the same Ideas in their Minds, and they receive the Notions of Vice in as lively a form by the very Methods taken to expose and condemn the Facts, as if those Facts were represented to the Opticks in all their shameless Nudities, with the most vitious and corrupt Dress that could be put upon them on a Stage, or in a Masquerade. (p. 8) However, the narrator stresses that far from exposing sin in the provocative costume associated with the theatre or the masquerade, he will avoid the decadent luxuriance of language, and will be “confined to a narrow Compass of Words ... to the great Loss of the Author, in taking away those Ornaments of his Discourse” (p. 9). Conjugal Lewdness finally concludes with further assertions of its linguistic chastity and purity of purpose, suggesting that any indecency can only come from the minds of its readers.

Bellamy, Liz. "Conjugal Lewdness". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 22 March 2005
[https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=5916, accessed 09 December 2018.]

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